Pace yourself. Sure, it sounds easy enough: Settle into the perfect speed for your given effort and hold it. But whether you’re a seasoned veteran or an eager newbie, it can be hard to know if you’re going slow enough on easy days and fast enough on hard days.
“You can’t go as hard as you want every time you work out, or you’ll have nothing left to race with,” says Greg McMillan, M.S., an exercise physiologist and founder and coach of McMillan Running in Flagstaff, Arizona. “The goal is to train at various paces, usually at 50 to 70 percent effort, so you can race at 100 percent. This is difficult for most runners to follow.”
It’s hard in part because not every runner knows the speed from which to base those paces. Here’s how to nail the right pace for every workout.
Find Your 5K Baseline
Many training plans base workout paces off your 5K race pace. But if you’ve never run a 5K or it’s been a while since you have, you’re probably under-or overestimating what that speed is, says Jonathan Cane, president of City Coach, a coaching service in New York City.
Figure it out: Enter a 5K and run at the hardest pace you can hold. Don’t want to race? Run two miles at a steady, conversational pace, then pick it up for the final mile to a speed at which you can speak only in phrases.
“Whatever speed you can sustain in that last mile is a good indicator of what your base pace should be,” says Cane.
A few days later, run three one-mile repeats at that pace (jog 800 meters between each repeat). If your third repeat is at least as fast as the first one, your baseline pace is ideal. But if each mile is progressively slower or you have to walk the recovery interval, adjust your base 5K pace by taking the average speed of the three miles.
“It’s hard to give a race effort during a training run, so doing your own 3.1-mile time trial won’t be very accurate,” says Cane. “This two-pronged approach will help gauge your speed better.”
If you need help figuring out your pace, use a pace calculator.
Assign Workout Times
Once you’ve established your baseline 5K pace, use it to determine how fast to run your workouts.
“Your goal is to create the least possible stress on your body that produces the maximum physiological benefits, not maximum stress to accomplish the same benefits,” says Jack Daniels, Ph.D., head coach with The Run S.M.A.R.T. Project.
In other words, don’t run one second faster than necessary.
Figure it out: Run long intervals, such as 800-meter repeats, at base 5K pace, and short intervals, such as 200-to 400-meter repeats, at about 10 to 15 seconds per mile faster than that, says Cane. Do tempo runs at 30 to 45 seconds per mile slower than 5K base, easy runs one to two minutes slower, and long runs 45 seconds to 1:45 minutes slower. New runners should add more time; regular racers can aim for faster times.
Adjust with Care
“Runners always want to finish a little faster,” says Vince Sherry, a Flagstaff, Arizona-based coach and cofounder of The Run S.M.A.R.T. Project. “We reach a race goal, and then all of a sudden it’s not good enough.”
It’s easy to think if you can run a workout, or even a portion of one, slightly faster, that you’ve stepped things up. But a good day (or moment) doesn’t necessarily translate into a new benchmark. For example: You’re supposed to run six one-mile repeats at 7:30 pace. Instead, you nail the first two repeats in 7:15. The resulting fatigue causes you to run the last four in 7:40. Result? The too-fast start makes for a slower workout.
“It’s not until you’re consistently clocking quicker repeats that you’re ready to boost your training speed,” says Sherry. If you find that you really need to amp up the speed, try these seven ways to run faster.
Figure it out: When it is time to pick up your base 5K pace, do it in segments, says Sherry. Instead of trying to run a mile 10 seconds faster than usual, break it up into 400-meter repeats with a 400-meter recovery jog or walk between each. Aim to shave two to three seconds off each lap. This allows you to dial in the pace before applying the adjustment to longer segments. Pay attention to trends in your training as well.
“If you’re a few seconds slower than predicted one day, that’s fine,” says Cane. “If you’re slowing down every Tuesday, you might be pushing too hard on Monday and need extra recovery time.”
But if you’re constantly coming up short on key workouts no matter when you perform them, it’s time to go back and readjust your baseline pace.